Class, as seen from the right.

Author:Morley, Gareth
Position:Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 - Book review

Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. New York: Crown Forum, 2012. 416 pases.

A person could be well into middle age and not remember it, but for most of the 20th century class was the central category of both social theory and practical politics.

From Lenin's arrival in the Finland Station until some difficult-to-pinpoint moment in the late seventies or early eighties, anyone who purported to be an intellectual had to grapple with Marxism, a doctrine that famously reduced history to the history of class struggles. Grappling with Marxism was by no means restricted to those on the left. Conservative anticommunists such as James Burnham (ex-Trotskyist, mentor of William E Buckley and therefore grandmentor of Ronald Reagan) and Milovan Djilas (early ally of Tito but ultimately his most devastating critic) developed theories of new bureaucratic classes battling capitalists and oppressing workers. Toward the end of this period, right-wing intellectuals developed the public choice school of political theory that in many ways translated Marxist historical materialism into the language of game theory and neoclassical economics. Moderates considered how democratic institutions could reconcile the competing interests of capital and labour. Even leading existentialists, agonizing over individual choice and meaning in the face of death and seemingly distant from social or political concerns, experienced an inferiority complex in the face of Marxism.

But class was not just an organizing concept for pointy-headed intellectuals. With the interesting exception of Canada, class dominated the day-to-day politics of the Atlantic democracies. Britain's Labour Party, West Germany's Social Democratic Party and France and Italy's Communist parties were working-class in self-conception and sociological reality, and their opponents were clearly the parties of business and middleclass professions. The two major U.S. political parties were free of socialist ideology of any stripe, but in the decades after the New Deal the Democrats saw themselves as the party of labour while the Republicans saw themselves as the party of business. Labour leaders in the decades after World War II unquestionably had a seat at the table. Working-class political power corresponded to an era of growing social programs, relatively equal incomes and constrained managerial discretion in the workplace.

That was then.

To those of us who became politically active in the eighties, the politics of class was already an object of nostalgia. Environmentalism, pacifism and gender, ethnic/ racial and sexual identity were far more compelling for youthful activists than class. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Marxism had lost its intellectual cachet, and with the collapse of Communism as a real alternative to liberal capitalism, the importance of class as a category of analysis was enormously devalued.

Class also became less central for practical politics. Nixon and then Reagan successfully appealed to southern and northern Catholic working-class people, especially men, while Democrats made inroads among professional groups like engineers and lawyers, who had traditionally been Republican. Thatcher and then Blair diluted, at least partially, the class character of their respective parties. European social democrats largely retained their historic base, but in the process often came to represent a smaller portion of the left-of-centre electorate, with the alternatives increasingly "postmaterialist" (i.e., middle-class). (1) As manufacturing employment inexorably declined in the face of changing technology and rising trade with newly industrializing countries, even the labour movement became less working-class. Public sector professionals who had been slow to unionize now dominate the union movement in the West, particularly in North America.

From the vantage point of 2012 and at the risk of greatly oversimplifying, the postwar history of the West can be split in two. During the first half (the French refer to these years as les trente glorieuses), class dominated how elites thought about politics and society. It was assumed that policy would reflect some compromise between business and labour. During the subsequent 30 years, class became a marginal part of our conceptual toolkit. And yet that second half has seen both diminishing racial and gender disparities and increasing polarization of wealth and income. (2) We think less about class, but it matters more to how we live.

Perhaps a generation from now, the 2008 financial crisis will be seen as another turning point. It once again has increased the salience of class. The contours of the mass movements opposing austerity in Europe would not astonish a newly defrosted observer cryogenically frozen in the 1940s. In the United States, the Tea Party and then the Occupy movement each briefly aroused positive feelings among a majority of Americans. Each presented in some form a class analysis of the situation America has found itself in since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the TARP bailout. The Tea Party is now an unpopular, sectarian and destructive tendency within the Republican Party and the Occupy movement never attained any effective influence in mainstream politics, but the initial popularity of these very different populist movements suggests that class is back in the West.

Clearly, the two movements do not mean the same thing when they propose class struggle. Tea Party supporters see themselves as snubbed by high-status educated elites, and believe these elites use their status to get public-sector preferment at outsiders' expense. The Occupiers consider economic wealth and power to be the same, and to the...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP